Fighting the Islamic State:
A Name is a Name is a Coalition
By Robin Wright
It’s all in a name, after all. The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State is facing skepticism even before it gets off the ground, reflected in the assorted titles used to describe it.
“The Reluctant Posse,” offered Rami Khouri, the Beirut-based columnist for The Daily Star and Agence Global.
“It’s the Coalition of the Hesitant,” said Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of al Arabiyya, appearing on National Public Radio this week.
“A Coalition of Uncertainty,” offered Tom Lippman of the Middle East Institute in Washington.
I think I’d call it – for now – the House of Cards Club because it’s a precarious frame without support beams, floor plan, doors or windows or furnishings, much less full financing.
The Obama administration is clearly trying to build a coalition that is something in-between the alliances that fought the last two Iraq wars. It wants participation that is more credible than the token U.S.-led coalition that fought Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. But it appears willing to settle for an alliance less robust than the coalition of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, which, ironically, included troops from key Arab nations, even Syria.
Once the administration opted to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State, Secretary of State John Kerry scrambled to rally partners. Two hastily assembled summits this month – one in Jeddah of 10 Arab countries plus Turkey, the other in Paris bringing together 30 delegations from 26 countries – have produced a coalition largely in principle rather than in practice.
Their words are strong but their roles are vague. The imprecise language out of the two summits was participation “as appropriate.” Some of the commitments even seem tepid.
Jon Stewart poked fun at the coalition on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show Monday.
“Oh really, Arab partners don’t want to be named. … So you’ll join the coalition as long as no one knows you’re joining it. On the DL. Just as long as none of your buddies find out. It’s like our coalition is your hookup, that you pretend not to recognize us at parties but as you walking by us, you go: ‘I’ll see you in Kurdistan at 3 a.m.’ Well guess what? Guess what, Mister. We’ll take it. Anything that help us avoid another Mideast walk of shame.”
Some partners have imposed their own conditions. The Saudis and Emiratis reportedly threatened not to participate in the Paris conference if Iran was included, even though Tehran played a key role in formation of a new government in Baghdad and is advising the three Shiite militias now fighting—along with Kurdish Peshmerga forces—against the Islamic State. Operationally, France indicated a willingness to provide air power for Iraq—but not Syria.
There’s a lot of picking-and-choosing that is not in the spirit of a coalition, especially from countries far closer and more vulnerable than the U.S. Unless its members offer a lot more muscle and momentum, the coalition risks being more of a diplomatic idea than a military reality.